FutureLearn, the UK’s answer to massive open online course (MOOC) platforms, has finally joined the race to deliver free online higher education. But as US rivals wave back from in the distance, does FutureLearn have any hope of catching up?

It has been two years since the first MOOC courses were conducted at Stanford, attracting hundreds of thousands of students. In the process, fierce argument ignited over whether the experiments were the harbinger of the long-awaited internet-guided missile slamming into the archaic brick and mortar walls of higher education.

The fallout spawned numerous US-based platforms all eager to take a chunk out of education’s binary future. Learning management systems Blackboard and Instructure, both with healthy userbases pre-assembled, launched CourseSites and Canvas, respectively. Iversity has appeared in Europe. Many more platforms have seen launches, or have one pencilled into the diary.

And then there’s the big three; two of which spun-out directly from the original Stanford experiments. Udacity, led by Google fellow and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, launched first in February 2012. Closely following it in April was Coursera, a rival platform led by fellow Stanford researchers Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, which has gone on to become the largest MOOC platform to date. Finally, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University teamed up to launch EdX, which is in the process of partnering with Google to launch Mooc.org, an online course platform that anyone can upload to and described as the “Youtube for MOOCs”.

Enter FutureLearn. Announced in December and turning up nine months later with an offering still in beta, it’s clear that the platform, wholly-owned by the Open University* (OU), has turned up late to the party. But is this arrival fashionably late, or just in time to clean up the aftermath?

On one hand, the OU could argue that this whole higher education distance learning affair has been its party all along. The institution’s 1970s early morning lectures broadcast on the state-funded television network BBC have become so ingrained in UK heritage that they have become the go-to flashback for any middle-aged British journalist reminiscing on television from their childhood.

Since the days of those sandal-wielding professors delivering mostly incomprehensible talks to a befuddled public still attempting to wrap their heads around breakfast, let alone quantum mechanics, the OU has pounced upon any new medium through which it can deliver higher education, and has been largely ahead of its peers in doing so.

For example, in the US this past week, UniversityNow secured a $19m series A round led by media conglomerate Bertelsmann. News provider Forbes named its chief executive Gene Wade as its education disruptor for 2013, citing the company’s low fees for self-paced and fully accredited distance learning degrees as reasons why. However, Wade’s disruption comes a whole 40 years after the OU awarded its first degrees for doing exactly the same thing.

It is this legacy in distance learning that makes the OU the obvious choice to lead a UK-based MOOC platform. Combined with OU technology designed to deliver content to smartphones and tablets and with Simon Nelson as chief executive, the architect of the BBC’s massively successful iPlayer, FutureLearn does provide a solid offering. As Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and co-founder of payments network PayPal, said at an entrepreneurs event at Oxford University’s Said business school a few years ago, “there were other search engines and social networks before Google and Facebook” but by coming later with a better offering meant they cleaned up the market.

However, is it enough to compete with Coursera and company? As mentioned, FutureLearn has spent nine months in incubation, and when it did finally turn up, it launched with 20 courses and a website still in beta. In that same time frame, Koller and Ng not only came up with the original MOOCs at Stanford, but had launched Coursera, received $22m in venture funding, and had over a million students.

FutureLearn could argue that slow and steady wins the race, but it was already on the backfoot in December. Since then, Coursera and EdX have roared onward. Coursera has grabbed a further $43m in venture backing and now has 4.7m users. Meanwhile EdX’s deal with Google might just eclipse everything else if Google’s dominance of the rest of the internet is anything to go by.

Along with the internet giant, EdX has other tricks up its sleeve. It’s open source, and will use the same technology for Mooc.org, meaning its userbase won’t just chuck up videos, but can truly innovate with the platform. It’s also entirely non-profit, with its backing coming from $30m each provided by MIT and Harvard, with each new academic partner chipping in a further $10m-$20m each.

The for-profit model which Coursera utilises, with an eye on the success of perhaps the world’s largest academic institution in the University of Phoenix, has been the topic of much criticism. Its main source of income, alongside headhunting services, is charging students for a certificate upon completion of a course. However, this model is hit hard by the large percentage of dropouts per course, often as high as 95%.

FutureLearn also went down this same route and  intends to combat dropout rates by providing a Facebook-esque social network around studies to keep students engaged – similar to peer NovoEd’s offering underpinning the Kauffman Fellows Academy’s MOOC.

FutureLearn, however, doesn’t have the same level of financial backing that Coursera has, backed so far by a seven-figure sum from the OU. Without this backing, FutureLearn may fail to build the critical mass of users it needs to succeed.

FutureLearn also lacks academic firepower. It has amassed a number of UK universities, including a number of Russell Group institutions, along with the British Council, Library, and Museum. However, missing from its line-up are University College London, Cambridge, Oxford, and Imperial College London, all of which are listed in the top ten QS World University Rankings. Without the reputation those universities can bring, FutureLearn has a massive hole in its drawing power, and also runs the risk that all four might attempt a platform of their own. Its late arrival also means it has missed out on international opportunities, which could have proved a major advantage, with US rivals hoovering up the best the rest of the world has to offer.

In a way, the OU faces similar concerns facing English football fans. Having invented the game, England has consistently failed to keep up with international competition. The same applies to distance learning as the US shoots ahead. FutureLearn is a risky gamble for the OU, which needs the project to succeed if it wishes for its brand to survive as bigger names edge into its game. It has a solid footing and the technology to deliver, but without solid investment and getting big names like Cambridge and ICL onside, it will struggle to play in MOOC’s already well-established big leagues.

This is not to say that it is over before it has begun for FutureLearn. The project shows much promise, utilises mobile technology in a way that its peers are yet to do, and is widely supported by UK academia and government. The big question is will this be enough to play catch up? We will have to wait until the project leaves beta in early 2014 to see. But the key metrics to success are can FutureLearn penetrate both the UK and international student markets emphatically enough to build critical mass, and will that entice the bigger UK institutions?

In short, FutureLearn needs to do as is its namesake and aggressively push to take a commanding presence in online education’s future and not dwell on the OU’s past, or else i
t will become a part of it.

* Disclaimer: Gregg has previously worked for the OU as a media relations officer, and worked closely on the FutureLearn project when it was first announced. While he personally supports the OU and FutureLearn, he has endeavoured to make this article as impartial as possible.